COVID-19 And Wildlife Conservation Challenges : Some Thoughts- Part-3

This is the final write-up by the writer of the three-part series  of COVID-19 And Wildlife Connservation challenges.

Can COVID-19 be different?

While it appears that we shall unlearn as quickly once the threat of COVID-19 is met, there is one significant reason why this time it could be different.

With the recent advent of social media, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first of its kind to be playing out in full public glare. It is being covered 24 x 7 continually and in real time globally on television, radio, newspapers, and news sites. Social media outlets are also active participants in this process. Not all such information is accurate or verified and social media especially is bombarded with conflicting information and misinformation. However, the nature of the threat is one constant that is being reiterated and amplified at each level.

Further, the drastic steps being taken for containment of the spread of COVID-19 are unprecedented in nature. Domestic and International travel bans, sealed borders, quarantines, extended lockdowns, personal protection and mass testing happening in the present are of a scale that the world has not seen in the past. These memories, ever so amplified by the media environment around us are likely to leave a permanent mark on human consciousness and understanding. Put simply, the world will change after Covid-19.

Past experiences of working on mitigating illegal wildlife trade suggest that legal processes that mainly target the supply side may not be successful by themselves alone. Conventional “Command and Control” mechanisms that tighten laws, regulations, penalties and enforcement efforts are much necessary but an understanding of the economic and social drivers of such wildlife trade when coupled with efforts to address the psychology of demand and the credibility of supply, yield much better results.

A similar approach needs to be tried here. A legal ban which clearly identifies what is acceptable and what is not, backed with effective enforcement and coupled with non-regulatory approaches that address livelihood concerns as well as targeted awareness programs for various levels of the trade can perhaps make a strong impact this time. This opportunity should not be missed.

The need for reliable and effective communication on this theme is greater than ever before.If we can leverage the collective negative impact on human minds due to the COVID-19 pandemic and make the wider public understand the potential lethal impacts of unregulated wildlife markets, maybe, just maybe, the demand curve for such products will also flatten out.

However, there is another potential twist to this. As the global economic order lies severely bruised due to the impacts of COVID-19, livelihood opportunities, especially for less advantaged are the most strongly hit. In the absence of any other viable economic opportunities in such troubled times, it is likely that in some locations at least, some of such economically displaced may take to illegal wildlife trade as an alternative. As we have known for long, wildlife crimes carry little or no social stigma and are seen as an easy option for food or generating money. If that happens, we will await another disaster in the natural world. We must do everything possible to ensure that the tide does not turn this way.

Finally, let’s come back to Nadia, the tigress. At the Bronx Zoo. Nadia, along with six other big cats, is thought to have been infected by an asymptomatic zoo keeper. Nadia, her sister Azul, as well as two Amur tigers and three African lions who showed symptoms, are all expected to make a full recovery (BBC 2020).

While the Covid-19 pandemic has been driven by human-to-human transmission, the infection of Nadia raises new questions about human-to-animal transmission or vice versa.

In a statement on 5th April, 2020, The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories also confirmed SARS-CoV-2 in Nadia. As on April 22nd, 2020, a total of fivetigers and three lions at the Bronx Zoo have tested positive for coronavirus.

According to the USDA, public health officials believe these large cats became sick after being exposed to a zoo employee who was actively shedding virus. All of these large cats are expected to recover. There is no evidence that other animals in other areas of the zoo are showing symptoms.

More importantly, USDA also went on to state that at this time, there is no evidence to suggest that any animals, including pets or livestock, can spread COVID-19 infection to people.

The news of the infection of big cats has raised a lot of concern across the conservation community. In India, advisories have been issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Govt. of India, the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Central Zoo Authority.

In light of the limited information at hand and the constantly evolving ground situation, these advisories have rightfully adopted the precautionary principle approach.

Some of the recommendations include:

1. Enhance disease surveillance, mapping and monitoring system through coordinated effort.
2. Special attention to monitoring of captive cats, ferrets and primates in zoos.
3. Tigers in the wild may be observed for symptoms consistent with COVID 19 such as respiratory signs of nasal discharge, coughing and laboured breathing through direct observation to the extent possible besides through camera trap images for visible symptoms
4. Reduce the human wildlife interface and restrict the movement of people to National Parks/Sanctuaries/Tiger Reserves.
5. Personnel handling tigers in human-tiger negative interactions and translocation operations be ascertained to be Corona virus negative. They should take due precaution as advised by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, GoI from time to time.
6. Keepers/handlers in zoos to use adequate safety equipment, preferably Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs).
7. Differential diagnosis with feline infectious rhino-tracheitis needs to be made as similar respiratory symptoms may be observed
8. For COVID 19 diagnosis as well as differential diagnoses and characterization as highlighted above, samples may be sent to approved laboratories.

These are pragmatic suggestions in the given situation, with universal applicability. The primary aim would be to minimize human contact with wild animals while keeping a close watch on their health. The need to protect the well-being of first-responders in wildlife-human conflict situations and that for health monitoring and disease surveillance amongst zoo keepers is stronger than ever before.

However, the major challenge is likely to play out in our zoos, where captive animals do come in closer proximity to their handlers on a regular basis. India’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA), to its credit has rolled out very detailed guidelines in this regard. Petting zoos, a popular entity worldwide, which allow human beings to come in close physical contact with wild animals need to be closed for now.

In our wilderness areas, the key would be to monitor any contraindicative signs in any wild animals. Protected Area managers and their entire team including Nature Guides and tourist vehicle drivers need to be well advised on what they are specifically expected to look for and the expected response. From the visitor’s safety perspective, even in some of the PAs where tigers and other animals may allow close approach to people in vehicles, the distance is still likely to be well beyond threat. Advisories on maintaining safe distance from wild animals in the wild need to be strictly enforced. In case of any suspected case coming up, the area needs to be closed down for visitors immediately, pending further investigation. In the wilderness, it is difficult to carry out continuous, direct observations of shy and secretive animals like tigers. As such, responses must be firmly driven by planning and preparation and based on secondary evidences such as scats, wherever possible.
There appears to be no cause to press panic buttons in the wild as yet, but to be cautious and prepared for any eventuality to follow.

Also, given the lack of evidence so far that the disease can be communicated to humans from domestic pets such as dogs and cats, there is no reason for pet lovers to fear.

On 22nd April, 2020 the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the US Govt. made the following recommendations:
• Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
• Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
• Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet from other people and animals.
• Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
If you are sick with COVID-19 (either suspected or confirmed by a test), restrict contact with your pets and other animals, just like you would around other people.
• When possible, have another member of your household care for your pets while you are sick.
• Avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food or bedding.
• If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wear a cloth face covering and wash your hands before and after you interact with them.
On another important note, the World Organisation for Animal Health has stated that …” the current spread of COVID-19 is a result of human to human transmission. To date, there is no evidence that companion animals play a significant a role in spreading the disease. Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare.

Preliminary findings from laboratory studies suggest that of the animal species investigated so far, cats are the most susceptible.
In the laboratory setting, cats were able to transmit infection to other cats. Ferrets also appear to be susceptible to infection but less so to disease. In the laboratory setting ferrets were also able to transmit infection to other ferrets. Dogs appear to be susceptible to infection but appear to be less affected than ferrets or cats. Egyptian fruit bats were also infected in the laboratory setting but did not show signs of disease or the ability to transmit infection efficiently to other bats.”

In conclusion
When the COVID-19 crisis is finally behind us, there will be lessons that shall hopefully not be forgotten easily. That there is one planet and the world and its people are one, sharing a common future, has been reaffirmed, albeit in a somewhat macabre way. While there shall surely be increased focus in the future on providing better support for human health care and disease management, there needs to be also renewed focus on restoring and maintaining our life support systems i.e. the natural world. More research will also focus on zoonoses. Hopefully, the larger world will begin to acknowledge that biodiversity conservation is not just about saving tigers and pandas and the like, but about securing human lives. “Prakriti RakshatiRakshita” – Nature protects if she is protected” is an ancient Indian saying which epitomises the path before us.

Today, the world rightfully stands together to acknowledge the enormous contribution, often at great personal risk being made by our health care professionals and support staff. Surely, someday soon, they will also rise to acknowledge the contribution of the silent foot soldiers of conservation, who toil unnoticed, unseen, unheralded in the battle to secure the planet for future generations.

(Samir Sinha is a Ph.D. in Wildlife Science and a Nehru-Fulbright Fellow. Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Uttarakhand Forest Department. Views expressed here are personal, for academic interest and in no way claim to represent the official views of the Govt. of Uttarakhand or the Govt. of India.)
Reach the author at : samirsinha100@gmail.com, Twitter : Samir Sinha IFS @wildsam100

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